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Edmund Clarence Stedman, ed. (1833–1908). A Victorian Anthology, 1837–1895. 1895.

Robert Browning 1812–89

Song from “Paracelsus”


OVER the sea our galleys went,

With cleaving prows in order brave,

To a speeding wind and a bounding wave—

A gallant armament:

Each bark built out of a forest-tree,

Left leafy and rough as first it grew,

And nail’d all over the gaping sides,

Within and without, with black-bull hides,

Seeth’d in fat and suppled in flame,

To bear the playful billow’s game;

So each good ship was rude to see,

Rude and bare to the outward view,

But each upbore a stately tent;

Where cedar-pales in scented row

Kept out the flakes of the dancing brine:

And an awning droop’d the mast below,

In fold on fold of the purple fine,

That neither noontide, nor star-shine,

Nor moonlight cold which maketh mad,

Might pierce the regal tenement.

When the sun dawn’d oh, gay and glad

We set the sail and plied the oar;

But when the night-wind blew like breathe,

For joy of one day’s voyage more,

We sang together on the wide sea,

Like men at peace on a peaceful shore;

Each sail was loos’d to the wind so free,

Each helm made sure by the twilight star,

And in a sleep as calm as death,

We, the strangers from afar,

Lay stretch’d along, each weary crew

In a circle round its wondrous tent,

Whence gleam’d soft light and curl’d rich scent,

And, with light and perfume, music too:

So the stars wheel’d round, and the darkness past,

And at morn we started beside the mast,

And still each ship was sailing fast!

One morn, the land appear’d!—a speck

Dim trembling betwixt sea and sky—

Avoid it, cried our pilot, check

The shout, restrain the longing eye!

But the heaving sea was black behind

For many a might and many a day,

And land, though but a rock, drew nigh;

So we broke the cedar pales away,

Let the purple awning flap in the wind,

And a statue bright was on every deck!

We shouted, every man of us,

And steer’d right into the harbor thus,

With pomp and pæan glorious.

An hundred shapes of lucid stone!

All day we built a shrine for each—

A shrine of rock for every one—

Nor paus’d we till in the westering sun

We sate together on the beach

To sing, because our task was done;

When lo! what shouts and merry songs!

What raft comes loaded with its throngs

Of gentle islanders?

“The isles are just at hand,” they cried;

“Like cloudlets faint at even sleeping,

Our temple-gates are open’d wide,

Our olive-groves thick shade are keeping

For the lucid shapes you bring”—they cried.

Oh, then we awoke with sudden start

From our deep dream; we knew, too late,

How bare the rock, how desolate,

To which we had flung our precious freight:

Yet we call’d out—“Depart!

Our gifts, once given, must here abide:

Our work is done; we have no heart

To mar our work, though vain”—we cried.